The following is a ten-step plan for businesses or other organizations to start a Federally-Registered Apprenticeship (RA) program based on federal law, recommendations from the U.S. Department of Labor and U.S. Department of Commerce, a review of successful and established apprenticeship programs from around the country and in different industries, and research into best practices in apprenticeships and workforce training.
This blueprint applies nationally, though some states may impose additional requirements to take advantage of state-specific tax incentives and other benefits. Every state has either a federal Office of Apprenticeships or a State Apprentice Agency that is federally-recognized, which is often the best source of up-to-date information and technical advising on starting or maintaining a federally-registered apprenticeship program.
Step 1: Hold meetings within your company, industry sector, or organization to decide how apprenticeships fit into your company culture, recruitment strategies, and short, medium, and long-term goals and work plans.
For an apprenticeship program to be successful, it must bring value to the company or organization, and there must be buy-in or support throughout the organization. The first step in creating an apprenticeship program is to consult with people in all relevant parts of the organization on how they currently operate, and how apprentices could support their work and be integrated into their department’s plans. For instance, the human resources department could share their current talent recruitment and development strategy—meaning how they hire new employees and support the professional development of current employees—and share what jobs the company has trouble filling.
Based on the collective input into these meetings, there should be a general consensus on the value of an apprenticeship program, and a clear concept of how it supports the organization’s strategy and work plans.
Step 2: Decide what types of job(s) you want to fill with apprentices, and what types of industry-recognized credentials and education those employees will need.
The second step in developing an apprenticeship program is to determine what job—or jobs—will be filled by the apprentices. Typically, companies realize the greatest return on their investment in apprenticeship programs when they are trying to fill middle-skill positions that require some specialized training or technical skill. These positions can be the most challenging for companies to fill, because they require a specific set of skills, unlike entry-level positions, and because they do not pay as well as high-skill positions, which limits the pool of interested applicants.
After determining what jobs in the company or organization will be at least partially filled by apprentices, it is necessary to identify the minimal education and industry-recognized credentials required for each of those jobs. In addition, since RA programs require mentors for the apprentices to help supervise their on-the-job training and integrate them into the company, planning for internal recruitment and training of mentors should begin.
Step 3: Contact your state office of apprenticeships to begin applying for a Federally-Registered Apprenticeship program, and to receive technical assistance and advising.
After determining how apprenticeships fit into your organization and what jobs you will seek to fill, the next step is to contact your state’s U.S. Department of Labor Office of Apprenticeship or a state agency that is recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. These agencies can provide technical assistance as a company creates its apprenticeship program, including helping to structure the apprenticeship program, preparing the on-the-job training outline, and identifying educational partners to help coordinate the program.
If the application is for an apprenticeship program for which the Department of Labor previously approved the Standards of Apprenticeship, it can receive expedited approval. However, if the occupation for the apprenticeship has not been previously approved by the Department of Labor, the application must include documentation on the need for an apprenticeship program and the curriculum for the program (proposed Standard of Apprenticeship).
Step 4: Form partnerships for your apprenticeship program to minimize costs and allow for a continuous cohort model of apprenticeship training.
Many different types of organizations can sponsor an RA program, including businesses, industry associations, labor organizations, community or four-year colleges, and community-based organizations. Since apprenticeship programs must include both on-the-job training and job-related classroom instruction leading to an industry-recognized credential, it is essential that at least one employer and at least one education provider (a college or workforce training provider) is a partner.
Employers, industry associations, and labor organizations also benefit from economies of scale by partnering together to train cohorts of apprentices for the same types of jobs across an industry in a region. For example, organizations could partner on a regional apprenticeship program for skilled electricians to work in the construction industry, medical technicians to work in the health care industry, and coders to work in the technology departments of companies.
By forming these partnerships, the cost to each employer for the training of each apprentice goes down, as they can share the fixed costs of classroom instruction, like the instructor or professor’s salary. Further, forming partnerships can enable a group of employers to continuously train cohorts of apprentices, even if each individual employer only needs to hire a handful of people for that position. The cohort training model is more effective because it facilitates group learning and provides the apprentices with a built-in peer support network that helps ensure retention and program completion.
Step 5: Design and obtain federal and state approval for the apprenticeship program, as well as approval from the Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium and any other relevant government or industry organization.
The next step is to submit a plan and documentation on the proposed apprenticeship program for a specific occupation to either the Department of Labor or your State Apprenticeship Agency—depending on your state—for their review and approval.
To obtain approval, the standards documentation must “demonstrate that an apprenticeship meets the five-part definition. . . by listing the occupational competencies, curriculum, wages and hours of work, applicant qualifications, and duties and responsibilities of the apprentices, sponsor, and mentors.” The application must also list the industry-recognized credential that the apprentices will receive upon program completion, and it must demonstrate that the program meets the Equal Employment Opportunity requirements for recruitment and selection and other regulatory requirements related to that particular apprenticeship field.
The key elements of RA programs are:
- Participants are paid by employers during training.
- Programs meet national standards for registration with the U.S. Department of Labor (or federally-recognized State Apprenticeship Agencies).
- Programs provide on-the-job learning and job-related classroom or technical instruction.
- On-the-job learning is conducted under the direction of one or more of the employer’s personnel.
- Training results in an industry-recognized credential that certifies occupational proficiency.
After obtaining approval from the U.S. Department of Labor or your state apprenticeship agency for an RA program, the next step is to submit your program information to the Department of Labor and the U.S. Department of Education’s Registered Apprenticeship College Consortium (RACC). The RACC is a national consortium of two and four-year colleges and educational associations, employers, and labor groups that have collectively agreed to accept a completion certificate from a RA program for college credit at any of the partner colleges and universities. In order to participate, the apprenticeship program must be evaluated by an independent third party organization, like the American Council on Education or the National College Credit Recommendation Service, which assesses the college-level equivalency of the program. By providing the apprentices with college credit, this consortium reduces the financial cost and time investment of earning a two or four-year college degree in the future, which encourages lifelong learning and career mobility.
Step 6: Establish a system to collect and analyze data on the costs and benefits of the apprenticeship program to each partner and the collective group, and to allow for streamlining and improvements to the program as it launches and unfolds.
Studies of apprenticeship programs consistently demonstrate that their value significantly exceeds their cost to the individual employee, the business, and the government. However, since each organization or company must spend significant resources to establish and run an apprenticeship program, and it is a multi-year commitment, it is optimal to collect data to track outcomes and justify the ongoing expenditure to the company’s leadership and board. The following steps are adopted from The Benefits and Costs of Apprenticeships: A Business Perspective:
First, it is necessary to keep track of the costs of the apprenticeship program, as compared to the current costs of recruiting and training for that job position(s). There will be certain fixed costs to running an apprenticeship program, which are also known as sunk costs, because they are the minimal expenditures to running the program regardless of the number of participants. These include the following: (a) curriculum development or purchase, (b) equipment purchases, if any, (c) staff time spent on setting up the program, (d) overhead and management costs, (e) use of classroom space, if outside of the company, and (f) recruitment costs. Then, there are variable costs, which will vary depending on the number of apprentices in your program. These include the following: (a) the wages and benefits paid to each apprentice, (b) the time each mentor spends with their apprentice-mentee, (c) any supplies and uniforms, if applicable, and (d) the tuition paid for each apprentice, and any costs and fees for their books and materials.
Second, assess and measure the benefits of the apprenticeship program to the entire company. Some potential benefits of an apprenticeship program could occur in production and operations, while other benefits could accrue on the human resources and personnel side. The potential benefits of an apprenticeship program on the program or operations side could include: (a) “output during the apprenticeship at a reduced wage,” (b) higher post-apprenticeship productivity relative to similarly-tenured employees,” and (c) reduction in mistakes or errors. On the human resources and personnel side, potential benefits could include: (a) greater “employee engagement and loyalty,” (b) “reduced turnover,” (c) dedicated “pipeline of skilled employees,” (d) “better matching of employee skills,” (e) pipeline of future managers, and (f) “lower recruiting costs.” Keep in mind that some benefits will only appear in the long-term, so it is important to track the baseline data prior to beginning the apprenticeship program and during the ensuing years.
Third, once the apprenticeship program is operational and it is possible to collect data on both its costs and benefits, share this data with people throughout the company and program partners to identify opportunities for improvements to the apprenticeship program and to minimize program costs while maximizing the program value. The U.S. Department of Commerce created a beta version of a tool to calculate the “return on investment”—or cost-benefit analysis—of internship programs, which can help with this calculation: http://www.esa.doc.gov/content/new-tool-help-firms-calculate-their-return-investment-apprenticeship.
Step 7: Recruit a diverse talent pool for the apprenticeship program from both incumbent workers and new jobseekers. Assess your employee onboarding process to ensure that your workplace is designed to support and integrate people of different races, colors, religions, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, and veteran status.
Once the apprenticeship program is designed and approved, it is necessary to recruit a diverse talent pool of applicants, and to ensure that the employee onboarding process reflects the needs of a diverse workforce. A critical component of this part of the work is to assemble a diverse team of current employees within your organization to lead the recruitment strategy development and the design of the process to successfully integrate these new apprentices into your company.
When designing the recruitment strategy, it is essential to have deliberate, targeted outreach to under-represented groups within the job type and career field. For instance, if you recruit apprentices for a job type that is predominantly filled by men, then you may have to create different messaging materials to recruit women. Part of recruiting under-represented groups of people for a specific job or career field is communicating that the organization is welcoming to a diverse workforce, and that there will be support once they are on the job.
It is essential to examine your organization’s policies and procedures for all employees to ensure that the workplace is equitably designed and that no unnecessary barriers are created. For example, do the company leave policies provide flexibility for employees with caregiving responsibilities—who are predominantly women—so that they are not penalized if they must take a day off to care for a sick child or ailing parent?
Step 8: Launch the pilot apprenticeship program, while continuing to recruit for subsequent cohorts of apprentices.
When the apprenticeship program launches, allow for some flexibility to adapt the program based on lessons learned from the apprentices and other partners, while still adhering to the minimal program standards. During this time, continue to recruit for subsequent classes of apprentices, including asking for referrals from current apprentices.
Step 9: Conduct regularly-scheduled in-person check-ins with the apprentices, their mentors and other supervisors, and the training/education providers to ensure that the program is running smoothly and that individual apprentices are successfully progressing through the program.
Although there is not national data available, a multi-year study of apprenticeship programs in ten states found that only about half of apprentices complete their program. While research shows that apprentices receive value in the form of higher lifetime earnings from participating, even if they do not complete the program, the company does lose a skilled employee that they have invested anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000 in training.
Some of this attrition may be due to the long length of apprenticeship programs, which generally run between one and four years. Over the course of years, peoples’ personal and professional lives and goals may change significantly. However, some of these apprentices left their programs because of challenges that were within the purview of the employer, with former female apprentices reporting harassment, hostile work environments, and discrimination. Apprentices may also face barriers to working full-time that confront many people, such as unreliable and inadequate public transportation, chronic health conditions, and insufficient and unaffordable help with child care or elder care.
Thus, there should be regularly-scheduled in-person check-ins with the apprentices, their mentors and supervisors, and the training/education providers to identify and remedy any issues. As part of these conversations, efforts should be made by the employer(s), mentor, education/training provider, and other partners to assist apprentices who encounter challenges in the workplace or in completing their training.
Step 10: On an ongoing basis, assess how the apprenticeship program can be improved, and implement those changes.
Finally, there should be a regular assessment of the apprenticeship program to determine how it can be improved and updated, as new developments occur in the career field or company. The cost-benefit data collected and the one-on-one check-ins with the apprentices, their mentors and other supervisors, and the training/education providers will help to identify areas for growth and improvement. For example, Dartmouth-Hitchcock changed the shift scheduling for its pharmacy technician apprenticeship program after receiving input from the apprentices that they found it difficult to be productive when working both a late night and an early morning shift.